Just at that moment, one of the waiters appeared with a couple of fresh glasses, deftly poured both bottled water and red wine for Jean-Marc, topped up everyone else's glass, and then retreated as silently and as efficiently as he had appeared. The Frenchman swept up his wine glass and held it up in a toast, then sipped, looked pensive for a moment and then nodded appreciatively. He returned the glass to the linen tablecloth and leaned forward over the table with a slightly conspiratorial air.
"I am a member of one of -" the Frenchman paused for thought, then said something quietly to Bret in the Lyndesfarne language.
"The Old Families," Tanji interjected before Bret could speak, "That would be the conventional translation."
"Indeed, The Old Families," Jean-Marc nodded agreeably, "So, my family has been associated with the Other World for many generations and my forebears have lived both in the area around the, ah, crossing at Lyndesfarne, as well as in this area."
Jean-Marc looked sideways at Bret.
"Where, once upon a time, there was another crossing," Bret said in measured tones, "Whose entrance was hidden in the Champagne cellars."
"Indeed, just so," the Frenchman said, looking reassured, "As is the responsibility of the Old Families, I keep a close ear to the local gossip, and a watch for strangers and unexplained goings-on, even though the old crossing has been closed for centuries."
Kevin suspected wryly that Jean-Luc rather enjoyed the excuse to spend much of his time sitting in café-bars in sunny town squares and chatting idly with a wide circle of acquaintances. On the other hand, it probably allowed him to hobnob with policeman and burglar alike without fear of raising suspicion as to his true motives.
"This task is one I have undertaken with great stoicism and commitment for decades," the Frenchman went on, sounding more pompous again, "Now, there are many caves in the chalk in this region. It is said that, even thousands of years ago, people would mine the chalk for building materials, forming vast conical caves whose only entrance from ground level was a small circular hole in the very top."
"We were in one of those caves only this afternoon," Kevin said, as Tanji and Bret nodded in agreement, "It was very impressive."
"Indeed, quite so," Jean-Marc said, looking slightly deflated.
"We took the easy way in," Kevin added, "down the stairs."
"Ah, yes. It wasn't always that easy," Jean-Marc continued, "Many years ago, a new cavern, one apparently unknown, was discovered by a local farmer, a grower of the grapes that are used to make the wines of the region. This farmer was a young man who had just taken over a vineyard from his father. The entrance to the cavern was hidden in a building at the corner of one vineyard, a little outhouse that had been disused for many years."
Jean-Marc paused to take a sip of his wine, then spoke again.
"The older man had, as is the nature of these things, not been as active in recent years than before, and might easily have abandoned the distant hut to time and decay. The son, exploring his new domain, was more diligent than the father, and discovered an apparently bottomless hole in the floor."
"The manner of its discovery was very dramatic, I have to say. The hole had been boarded over and it was only found when the young man, a stoutly-built youth, had stepped heavily on the floor, only to find that the old and rotten timbers had crumbled under his feet. It was only his quick wits and powerful arms which saved him. He was able to grab the doorframe just as the floor gave way, and pull himself to safety."
"I heard of this strange happening through my contacts, and met with the young farmer immediately, in the bar where he was regaling his friends with his lucky escape over a bottle of wine. After interviewing the shaken farmer, I at once volunteered to explore the mysterious opening in the company of two others, all of us being experienced cave explorers."
Kevin, or perhaps Tanji, must have registered an expression of disbelief on their faces.
"I was more svelte in those days," Jean-Marc said huffily.
In fact, Kevin was impressed. In a moment of madness, as a student many years before, he had been encouraged to join in a caving expedition. He had been persuaded by an acquaintance, a drinking buddy, who was a keen member of the spelunking society at the University. Kevin could clearly remember abseiling into a darkened hole in the ground – or, more precisely, being lowered under the control of a more experienced caver, the darkness somehow being made more alarming by being fitfully illuminated by head-mounted lanterns. He had found himself terrified by the sense of being out of control, suspended over a dark drop, and swore he would never do this again.
Jean-Marc was clearly made of sterner stuff, Kevin soon learned.
"Our brave trio," the Frenchman said, "equipped with the very best pot-holing equipment money could buy, set out the very next morning to the little hut at the bottom of the vineyard. I abseiled down thirty metres or more to the floor, followed moments later by one of my companions. The third remained on the surface, in case of need." Jean-Marc smiled broadly at the memories.
"The first time in an unexplored cave is always a magical moment and this one was no exception. There was no sound, not even the dripping of water, other than the movement of ropes and our own breathing. There could have been anything down there, or nothing at all."
"Of course we were equipped with powerful electric torches which we shone about us, the light glistening on the white chalk walls, and showed us the confines of the cavern. Many of these caves are joined up to conventional wine cellars these days," Jean-Marc said, nodding to Kevin, "But as we looked around, it seemed as if the cavern had lain untouched for centuries, ever since the last quarrying workers left. There was no indication of any tunnels leading off, and the walls formed a perfect cone above us, with no sign of any collapse, and with just a dim light showing from the very centre where our ropes still hung."
"The floor was dry, but stepped and irregular in places, some of which still showed the marks of the tools used to cut the blocks, with a pile of rubble directly under the entrance in the roof above. It looked as if all kinds of rubbish had fallen into the cave over the centuries, but the debris was by now just dirt around a pile of broken stones."
Kevin was listening carefully, as he had learned to do when someone from the Other World - or at least associated with it - told a tale. There seemed to be a tradition of using the traditional spoken story for both information and entertainment, often at the same time.
"We carefully explored the edges of the cave," Jean-Marc continued, "Where the stonecutters from ancient times had last been working. Perhaps we were hoping to find some valuable remnant, a roman coin or lost treasure. What we actually found was a surprise: a couple of buttons of an old-fashioned design, still with a few rotten threads attached. They looked like they had been torn off someone's clothing while climbing in the cave itself. At first we thought even the buttons might fetch a small price, but later we would discover that they were made from Bakelite, and actually could not have been more than twenty years old. Elsewhere in the cavern we found a few paper pages torn from a note book, all blank, nothing written on them that we could make out. In any case, the paper crumbled to dust as soon as we touched it."
Jean-Marc paused, no doubt for dramatic effect.
"And then there was one other thing, a curious item of jewellery, crude and heavily-made in form, although there was a certain naïve and rustic charm about it."
Kevin leaned forward, suddenly suspecting the true nature of the item Jean-Marc was describing.
"My companion did not recognise the device, not being from one of the Old Families, but to me it gave the appearance of an amulet of power from the Other World, although it was now of course completely inert."
Jean-Luc sat back with the air of someone successfully completing a difficult task.
"Obviously, all this is suggestive that someone from your world" - he nodded politely in Bret's direction - "had been exploring these very caverns, in the company of someone from this side of the crossing."
Kevin was fascinated by this story, as was Tanji, and their interest must have shown on their faces. Jean-Marc beamed at the approbation.
"But who was it that had explored this cavern before?" Tanji asked, the curiosity burning in her eyes.
"We don't know," Bret interjected darkly, "But I personally have my suspicions."
Bret had clearly heard the Frenchman's tale before and he leaned forward to prompt Jean-Marc towards a different topic.
"But there has been a more recent incident, has there not?"
Jean-Marc nodded, then picked up his wineglass and once again sampled the very fine red wine in an unhurried fashion.
"Following the traditions of my family," he resumed, returning the glass to the table, "I maintain a complex network of, shall we say, friends and neighbours who I can trust to tell me all about strangers, especially since I will frequently provide a modest reward to anyone who does report something I can use."
Kevin could imagine how this could work. An affable man, like Jean-Marc, would have many acquaintances and contacts, men and no doubt women too who would be only too happy to pass on any tittle-tattle they heard, as a personal favour to him. And if there happened to be a favour in return, or perhaps a little present - a bottle of brandy or a small sum in cash - well, that was all to the good.
"It was just five or six months ago that I received word from the Board of Control, and separately from your Mother" - he nodded once again to Bret - "About some unexplained activity. It was all very vague and uncertain, but somehow implying that there was a plot to attempt to re-open the old crossing. I redoubled my efforts and I started getting reports of some newcomers, a small number of individuals delving into forgotten corners of the landscape and making tentative enquiries about the purchase of land."
"These strangers hung around for only a few days. My informants said that they claimed to be working for the TGV" - Jean-Marc pronounced the letters in the French fashion, referring to the firm than ran the country's high-speed rail network - "but a trusted contact of mine in the company denied that anyone was carrying out surveying work in this area."
Jean-Marc looking frustrated, unusually vexed.
"I myself was never able to catch up with these mysterious strangers," Jean-Marc resumed, "Despite the most strenuous enquiries, I never discovered where they were staying, and they never appeared in the same place twice. I never even got a hint of a name, and descriptions of their appearance - and even their gender - were worryingly inconsistent."
"Using my contacts in the TGV, and in other organisations more locally, I did my utmost to find out everything I could about excavations and public building works in this area. But there was nothing, no building activities of any kind officially registered or otherwise known to be underway, anywhere close to the site of the old crossing."
The Frenchman paused for a moment, apparently deep in thought as if confirming that he had not omitted anything from his account.
"I have of course reported this through the usual channels," he concluded.
"Indeed," Bret agreed, "But I thought it was worthwhile for my companions to hear your report first-hand. Thank you for your time this evening."
"The pleasure is all mine," the Frenchman said, again sweeping up his wineglass and draining the last few drops, "It is time for me to be on my way. I have a few more calls to make this evening. So, let me wish a good night to you all."
Jean-Marc stood, reached over the table to shake hands all round, then swept grandly out of the dining room.
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